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all photos: Jeff Martin

An artist of Ai Weiwei’s caliber (and notoriety) opening a show in D.C. was always going to be an occasion, especially in these politically charged times.

The fact that the show Hirshhorn chose to continue their blockbuster (non-American) season on 2016/2017 with (Ragnar / Kusama / Yoko Ono / now Ai) is dedicated to people Weiwei considers “activists, prisoners of conscience and advocates of free speech” makes this potentially an ALL CAPS kind of OCCASION.

The fact that this works is very personal to Weiwei, and his freedom of speech journey and struggles (Last time we had a chance to have Weiwei in DC, Ai was unable to attend the Hirshhorn’s 2012 survey of his work, since the Chinese government confiscated his passport).

The fact that the production of the exhibition is also part of the urban art folklore in which Weiwei went head to head with LEGO (the primary material in Trace, to the tune of 1.2 million pieces) demanding they change their “no politics policy” and won (art won!) makes it a boldened ALL CAPS kind of OCCASION.

The fact that the 176 portraits in the mix are colorful and bright and between them offer a little something for most visitors to connect to (from MLK Jr sighting to Nelson Mandella to Chelsea Manning and Snowden) – it should also be an instagram kind of occasion too.

So, by all accounts this should be a resounding win.

But somehow, it just doesn’t quite connect.

On first glance, the five galleries (with a 700 ft custom wallpaper graphic surrounding it) is overwhelming and feels a little bit like a test from Weiwei to us: do you know these people? You should know these people. There is a screen in each gallery allowing you to learn a little more about all of them (which does turn the show into a little bit of a homework, even for the most activism engaged art lovers). But the main problem is, well, that you can’t really see these people.

The scale of the portraits is so large, and the work is so two dimensional that there is truly no good vantage point to examine the portraits. Photos allow a perspective that a naked eye can’t quite, well, zoom in on, and for that, the stories in front of us often feel superficial. Granted, this may be part of Weiwei’s message, and we have to appreciate the potential sly humor in “pixelating the human struggle”, and the artist calling the viewer out on their superficial approach, but at the same time we hope we could just move beyond effect in terms of activism art, and dig a little deeper.

Still, definitely an ART OCCASION.

Ai Weiwei’s Trace opens today, and runs through January 1st, 2018. For more details and additional programs, go here.